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Democratic Senate appointees are now looking vulnerable

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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

This was supposed to be the sure thing.

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Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, the eldest son of Vice President Biden, was seen as a certain candidate in the open-seat Senate race to replace his father and keep the spot in Democratic hands. Just to be sure that the path was clear for his son, Biden saw to it that Ted Kaufman, a longtime aide to him in the Senate, was appointed to fill the anticipated two-year lacuna between Bidens.

All that changed on Monday when Beau Biden announced that he would not run, citing his duty to his current job. That decision immediately turned Rep. Michael N. Castle (R) into an overwhelming favorite to claim the vice president's old seat this fall.

It's not just in Delaware, however, that appointed Democratic senators have clouded, rather than clarified, the party's electoral prospects in 2010. President Obama's former Senate seat in Illinois is being targeted by Republicans who think they have an opening, after the controversy surrounding the appointment of Roland Burris (D) by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached shortly afterward. And in last week's Massachusetts special election, state Sen. Scott Brown (R) successfully made into a campaign issue the Democrats' changing of state law to allow Gov. Deval L. Patrick (D) to appoint Paul Kirk (D) as an interim replacement to the late Edward M. Kennedy.

"Challengers are always going to be a little hungrier, don't have the baggage of being an incumbent with a record to defend, and have more time to spend in a campaign," said Bob Kerrey (Neb.), who served as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the 1996 cycle and ousted an appointed senator, Republican David Karnes, in his first race, in 1988.

Six appointed senators are serving in the chamber -- five Democrats and Florida Republican George S. LeMieux. Of the Democratic seats, the one in Massachusetts has already been lost. Delaware leans heavily toward the GOP, and most political handicappers regard Colorado and Illinois as tossups.

"Adding seats in play and taking away the incumbent advantage in others doesn't look as great in hindsight as it did last year," said one senior Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

Democratic observers say appointed senators are particularly vulnerable because of three factors: a White House that was perhaps overconfident after Obama's big victory in 2008; the faulty or odd decisionmaking of several governors in filling the seats; and a national political climate that has turned strongly anti-incumbent in recent months.

In the immediate aftermath of Obama's presidential victory, his decision to appoint Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as secretary of state and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as secretary of the interior were cast as savvy moves aimed at bringing the best and brightest into his Cabinet. But, his picks also took safe seats and turned them into battlegrounds

In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter plucked Michael Bennet, the Denver schools superintendent and a virtual political unknown, to replace Salazar. In New York, embattled Gov. David A. Paterson publicly flirted with picking Caroline Kennedy for months before settling on Kirsten Gillibrand, a second-term congresswoman from Upstate New York, whom many party liberals are uncomfortable with.

Polling suggests Bennet is in a dead heat with former lieutenant governor Jane Norton (R). Gillibrand is trying to turn back a likely primary challenge from Harold Ford Jr., a former congressman from Tennessee who now lives in New York.

What's worse for Democrats is that Colorado and New York may be their best hopes for holding onto seats in the five states represented by appointed senators. In Massachusetts, Brown won't face reelection until 2012, and Beau Biden's decision makes Delaware a difficult race, although national party officials are expressing optimism about the possible candidacy of New Castle County Executive Chris Coons.

In Illinois, Democrats were relieved at Burris's decision not to run for a full term. But state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, the current front-runner, is under attack in advance of the state's Feb. 2 Democratic primary for his connections to the Blagojevich administration. "Who will take on Washington spending and Wall Street abuses?" asks the narrator in an ad for David Hoffman, a former Chicago inspector general. "Not Alexi."

Paul Begala, a top aide in the Clinton White House, noted that the struggles of appointed Democratic senators contrast sharply with the successes of House Democrats in special elections since Obama won the presidency. "They're 5 and 0 in House races, yet so many appointed senators are in trouble," he said. "Yet another reason why I trust voters."


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